“We didn’t know at the time that we were questioning our gender. We just knew that this felt right. There wasn’t all this terminology, all this labeling–you know what I mean?”
In her 1998 oral history interview, a Black transgender woman known as “Major” recounted her experience of 1950s “queen” culture in Chicago. The word “transgender” was not in common use until the 1970s, but Major’s testimony demonstrates that queer people have long known that we do not conform to societal norms. (A note on positionality: I say “we” because I identify as queer; I am a White, cisgender, pansexual, polyromantic person.)
Major’s testimony demonstrates a broader set of issues in the queer community: what do we call ourselves, what should others call us, and who decides which, if any, terms are authoritative? How do we as a society respond to changes in what terminology is acceptable? Many people are surprised to learn that the information profession also has a contentious history when it comes to what to call queer people.
Queer in the Library
Imagine you could travel back in time to look for resources about queer people in library catalogs. Until the late 1970s, if you wanted to find information about homosexuality, you would have to have used the search term “Sexual perversion.” Prior to mid-2016, any library catalog searches for “asexuality” would only have led you to resources about asexual reproduction in plants. Queer or not, the central problem remains that no person wants to be pathologized as perverse or classified as non-human.
Why do we need appropriate library catalog terminology, and who comes up with it? The formal terms that librarians use to describe resources (e.g., books, films) are called subject headings, which collectively make up controlled vocabularies. The most widely used such vocabulary is LCSH, short for Library of Congress Subject Headings. First published in 1909, LCSH governs how users find information in library catalogs the world over, and no wonder: subject searches optimize the research phase by collocating all materials on a given subject. For example, a subject search for “structural engineering” retrieves electronic records for every item in a given catalog about structural engineering, even if the book is titled something seemingly unrelated like “A Bridge to Nowhere.” But for all of its benefits, LCSH is a product of bias, rooted in time and place, rife with outdated, exclusionary terms. People are not bridges, and the fight for accurate and respectful representation of queer people in the library catalog is far from over.
Critical Cataloging Then and Now
The so-called critical cataloging movement emerged in the 1970s in direct response to problematic terminology in LCSH. Sanford Berman’s Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Headings Concerning People (1971), was foundational to this movement:
[The Library of Congress] list can only ‘satisfy’ parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian (and preferably Protestant) in faith, comfortably situated in the middle- and higher-income brackets, largely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally loyal to the Established Order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of Western civilization.
While Berman advocated for changes to formal knowledge organization systems like LCSH, calling out the biases and power belonging to catalogers in dominant cultures. Others took additional steps and created alternative systems such as the Homosaurus (“an international LGBTQ+ linked data vocabulary”) to de-center cis- and heteronormativity in cataloging. Both approaches have value, and librarians working in alternative and formal systems should collaborate to improve queer representation in subject headings. In 2022, we created a community to do just that.
Collaborative Activism: The Gender and Sexuality SACO Funnel
In June 2022, during a virtual cataloging meeting, I heard Michelle Cronquist (she/her), Special Collections Cataloger at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Staci Ross (she/her), Cataloging/Metadata Librarian at the University of Pittsburgh, talk about co-chairing a group called the African American SACO Funnel. SACO stands for the Subject Authority Cooperative Program, a Library of Congress initiative that encourages catalogers to “funnel” their expertise into suggesting changes to LCSH. You do not have to pay anything to become a funnel, and any number of libraries may combine their resources, time, and energies into completely autonomous projects. As I listened to Cronquist and Ross talk about their successful petition to the Library of Congress to change “Blacks” to “Black people,” I wondered if other historically marginalized groups had their own funnels. Maya Espersen (she/they), Cataloging Coordinator at Aurora (Colorado) Public Library, shared in this curiosity, noting in the meeting chat that there was not a queer funnel. I jumped into action.
Within two weeks, I had organized a virtual meeting of thirty-six attendees, and I began consulting with Cronquist, Violet Fox of the Cataloging Lab, Homosaurus Editorial Board Member B. M. Watson, and others about their work. Today our mailing list has grown to include some sixty librarians across Canada and the United States. Collectively we are the Gender and Sexuality SACO Funnel, and our co-chairs are myself, Espersen, and Adam Schiff (he/him), Principal Cataloger at the University of Washington Libraries and author of the “SACO Participants’ Manual” (2007). The Gender and Sexuality SACO funnel works independently and in consultation with other critical cataloging groups, including the Homosaurus, the Queer Metadata Collective, and the African American SACO funnel. Current projects include partnering with a major state university on a reproductive rights and health subject heading audit (a de facto testing ground for numerous funnel proposals) and a proposal to change the dehumanizing heading “Gays” to the more humanizing “Gay people” (a massive undertaking affecting hundreds of subject headings).
Library subject headings are here for the foreseeable future, but it must reflect humanizing language that challenges the pathologizing of queer communities. Controlled vocabulary, while allowing users to identify multiple resources for one subject, reflects a monolithic, cis- and heteronormative point of view. As long as LCSH dominates library catalogs, librarians interested in queer representation must collaborate across formal and alternative knowledge organization systems to advocate for corrections, deletions, and additions, keeping in mind that today’s correction might be tomorrow’s pejorative. The work is never finished, and we keep fighting.
“African American Subject Funnel Project.” Library of Congress online. Accessed March 9, 2023. https://www.loc.gov/aba/pcc/saco/aframerfun.html.
Berman, Sanford. Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. 2nd ed. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1993. https://sanfordberman.org/prejant/prejant.pdf.
Cronquist, Michelle, and Staci Ross. “Collaboration, Successes, and Challenges in the African American SACO Funnel.” Virtual slide presentation, OCLC Cataloging Community Meeting, June 3, 2022. https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/cataloging-subscription/cataloging-events/OCCM%202022-06%20first%20session.pdf.
Fox, Violet. “Cataloging Lab – Experiment with Controlled Vocabularies.” The Cataloging Lab. Accessed March 9, 2023. https://cataloginglab.org/.
Harpring, Patricia. “What Are Controlled Vocabularies?” In Introduction to Controlled Vocabularies: Terminology for Art, Architecture, and other Cultural Works, 12–26. Edited by Murtha Baca. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2010. https://www.getty.edu/research/publications/electronic_publications/intro_controlled_vocab/what.pdf.
“Homosaurus Vocabulary Site.” Homosaurus. Accessed March 9, 2023. https://homosaurus.org/.
“Introduction to Library of Congress Subject Headings.” Library of Congress online. April, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/aba/publications/FreeLCSH/LCSH44-Main-intro.pdf.
Johnson, M. “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Subject Access: History and Current Practice.” Thesis, University of Washington, 2007. https://www.lib.washington.edu/msd/norestriction/b58062361.pdf.
“Landing Page: Queer Metadata Collective.” Queer Metadata Collective. Accessed March 9, 2023. https://queermetadatacollective.org/.
Major. Interview by Susan Stryker. January 29, 1998. Transcript, Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California. Digital Transgender Archive online. https://docs.glbthistory.org/oh/Major1-29-1988_web.pdf.
Moyse, Ellena G. “Queer Browsing and the Library of Congress Subject Headings: Can User-generated Tags Enhance Subject Access to LGBTQ+ Material?” Masters thesis, City University of London., 2021. https://hcommons.org/deposits/objects/hc:39538/datastreams/CONTENT/content.
“SACO Funnels.” Library of Congress online. Accessed March 9, 2023. https://www.loc.gov/aba/pcc/saco/funnels.html.
Schiff, Adam L. “SACO Participants’ Manual.” Rev. ed. Program for Cooperative Cataloging. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2007. Minor revisions, February 28, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/aba/pcc/saco/documents/SACOManual2007.pdf.
Watson, B. M. “There was no sex but sexuality”: Critical Cataloging and the Classification of Asexuality in LCSH.” Masters student paper, Indiana University Bloomington, . https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/25766/CCQ_Watson.pdf.